Category Archives: design

The back porch project

And a project it is!

We knew pretty much from the beginning that the back porch would need to be replaced. It may look sort of OK from the outside, but the bones are rather ailing.

Because it was an enclosed porch, we had planned to rebuild it as an enclosed porch. That got us into a whole lot of trouble, starting with zoning. Not only did we have to apply for an administrative adjustment because our building set backs weren’t right, but we also found out that the currently existing enclosed porch was never permitted. Setting this right rested on our shoulders. The good news is that another administrative adjustment and a $250 fee got us a permit for a new enclosed porch.



Nice porch, isn’t it? And expensive, too, as we quickly found out. We knew that we didn’t want to spend that kind of money, but still tip-toed around the issue for a couple of years. Then, our neighbors got their back porch replaced – a typical open, Chicago-style back porch. That made us realize that an enclosed back porch is more a “want” than a “need.”

We already have 1,500 square feet of living space on the 1st and 2nd floor – which is a lot for an old building like ours. Adding another 250 square feet of conditioned space seemed too much of a luxury, certainly at that price tag.

Changing plans

So, we decided to instead build an open porch, with the exception of the basement level where we can have a workshop and tool and bicycle storage. We also decided to keep the roof access to our future vegetable garden, the PV, and the Solar Hot Water panels.


We also decided to keep our options open. If we want to turn the back porch into a three season room or sleeping porch at one point, we should be able to do so. That would require us to waterproof each porch floor, but we can plan for that.

The building permit we currently have includes the porch … except that the porch we now plan on building is different from the porch on the permit plans. I hate to admit it, but we need to pull another building permit, just for the porch.

This time around I won’t have to do it, but rather we will have our porch contractor take care of it. It’s nice to have that task delegated, except that the contractor isn’t a great communicator. Let’s see where that will take us…

While we wait for the plans and permit, I have some serious prep work to do, like that old grease trap, which we temporarily turned into a sump pit.

Related posts:

Zoning surprise

Zoning – the process

Dusting off the wish list

The green roof dream

Grease trap cleaning

Nail biter


1st floor bathroom layout

Compared to today’s standards, our 1st floor bathroom is, let’s say, rather compact. It originally measured 6’ 8” by 5’ 10”.

We were keen to keep, if not improve, its functionality, and maybe even arrange the layout in a way that would create the illusion of it being more spacious than it really is.

Early on in the project, we scrapped the original sewer stack and later on replaced it with a new one in a slightly different location. Moving the replacement stack a few feet further to the west allowed us to switch the vanity and toilet around.

This was a welcome improvement as one no longer trips over the toilet while entering the bathroom.

We also were able to add about seven square feet to the bathroom space.

The north wall faced built-in shelves on the dining room side. By removing the shelf space we added 16 inches to the bathroom.

What to do with the good old bathtub?

Why should we install a new bathtub if, in the end, we ‘ll just use it to take showers? Can you remember that last time you actually have taken a bath in a bathtub? I cannot. But then, I am also a tall guy and taking a shower just seems more convenient.

Cathy and I sat on this issue for a while and eventually decided to scrap the tub in favor of a barrier free, walk-in shower.

The factor that made us lean towards scrapping the tub had to do with plumbing foresight. We positioned the shower drain such that it could be converted to a bathtub drain, should we change our minds down the road.

I have to touch on one of my favorite topics – moisture management. Seriously, while deconstructing the interior of our house, we got to see first-hand the damage improper moisture management can cause.

You can read up on our research into moisture management and basic management principles in these two posts:

The bathroom, in building science terms classified as a wet room, should have a floor drain. Yes, we already have the shower drain, but because of its location, it won’t be able to serve all of the bathroom area. Plus, the shower drain may one day be converted to a tub drain.

Adding a second floor drain was relatively easy while rebuilding the entire plumbing system. To see how we made the two floor drains work, go to the post Slippery Slopes.

Another must is to have the bathroom floor waterproofed and tiled. The same principle applies to the walls around the walk in shower. Basically, anything that gets exposed to water or water spray needs the waterproofing and tiles.

We planned on continuing the tile treatment around the bottom half of all the other bathroom walls. But at this point, its really more about aesthetics.

A recent post covered the subject of the bathroom cabinet, which we would like to add to the northwest corner.

We also will need some kind of shower enclosure. One idea was to install on a shower wall, somewhat similar to what we have in the garden unit bathroom.

But this solution would make the bathroom feel really small again – too small for our liking!

If, instead of the rigid shower wall, we would go with a shower curtain, we could borrow from the shower space whenever the shower is not in use.

This simple trick would significantly increase the perceived spaciousness of the bathroom and the ease at which one can move around.

So much for the layout and design ideas. Now it’s implementation time!


More about space and time

A whole lot of things are happening on the 1st floor and I have difficulties keeping the blog up to date with our construction progress. That said, I began to tell the story of our architectural decisions as they relate to the floor plan, but stopped sort of in the middle – with the half bathroom, the pantry and the bedroom closets.

There is more to tell, and now may be a good time to conclude that story, before too much time passes.

The foyer and old tenant room

If you take a look at the floor plan above, you will notice a door at the end of the foyer leading directly into the 3rd bedroom. The strange thing is that the 3rd bedroom has another door leading into the dining room. A bedroom with two doors?

Eventually, it was explained to us that it was not uncommon in the early 20th century to rent a bedroom to a tenant. The door at the end of the foyer allowed the tenant to come and leave without disrupting the activities in the men’s and women’s parlor (library and living room).

Because we don’t have plans for tenants at this point but thought of turning the 3rd bedroom into a small home office, we decided to remove the door between the foyer and 3rd bedroom. That leaves us with extra space at the end of the foyer that we split into a built-in shelf on the office side and a coat closet on the foyer side.


When we viewed the house for the first time, back in fall of 2008, the 1st floor living room still had a hutch (see also floor plan above). A few months later, the scavengers got into the house and, amongst other things, had removed the hutch.

With no original hutch left, the decision to turn the space between the living room and master bedroom into the ventilation closet was an easy and logical one, considering that we were able to reuse the adjacent chimney for the ventilation exhaust.

We also must have had a hutch once in the dining room, although Cathy is of the opinion that it may have been a Murphy bed.

The question here was whether we should dedicate this former hutch space to the dining room, with a new hutch or built-in shelves, or to the bathroom, giving us a little more space to move around. Because the bathroom is very small, having an additional 16 inches of floor space did sound awfully attractive.

The china cabinet

Last but not least is a minute change, so subtle I almost forgot about it. That’s the storage closet in the corridor between the dining room and kitchen (see also floor plan above).

The northern end of the storage closet had this incredibly awkward triangular shape. With the discovery of the hutch (or Murphy bed) in the dining room, the idea emerged to turn the triangle of the storage closet into a built-in china cabinet on the dining room side.

This turned the formally dead triangle into a useful and hopefully a charming cabinet. It will be interesting to see how we will finish it.

That concludes the changes to the original floor plan of the building. As a summary, you find below a graphic of the original floor plan and a graphic with the changes described above in a previous post.


Space and time with a coating of architecture

We had a quite a time discovering the original floor plan during the deconstruction process. We mostly liked what we uncovered.

See also:

Our decision to largely restore the original floor plan was an easy and swift one. That also meant that we are stuck with the original room sizes. That is not a problem; it is just a little unusual if measured against anything that resembles today’s McMansion architecture.

Small is beautiful

Houses a hundred years ago were tailored to a different social structure then we have today. Bedrooms were small but functional – small rooms, no larger than 100 square feet for rest and sleep, sometimes with a closet and sometimes without. There was also one small bathroom – just enough space to use the toilet and get cleaned up.

The social spaces including the kitchen, dining and living rooms, on the other hand, were generous in the space they provided to the user, each measuring 200 to 300 square feet. They often were connected to each other with large, wide doors, effectively doubling the space if the doors were left open.

Would we desire a contemporary sized bedroom or bathroom, we would need to encroach into the square footage of the social spaces. This is an idea we did not feel at ease with.

The function of time and activity

We don’t necessarily spend most of our time in the larger social spaces, but they are the areas in which most of the activities takes place: Cooking, eating and resting (other than sleeping); having friends and neighbors over; having the birth, exchange and flow of ideas; observing the activities on the street and in the garden; reading and listening to music …

The 100 year old layout – the way the social spaces are sized, structured and connected to each other – is masterful. Having resources flow into changing this layout feels wasteful, while re-using the inherent charm and functionality of the original floor plan appears resourceful.

It isn’t that creating larger bedrooms didn’t cross our mind or that we weren’t tempted. But during a down-to-earth moment, we realized that we would be better off getting over the “standing in the candy store” mentality. If this is to become a green rehab project with some level of integrity and for the sake of functionality, we have to be rational and focus on the real needs, not so much the wants.

The déjà vu factor

It was helpful to think back to those bedrooms in previous apartments. They all were small rooms, around eight by ten feet, and they did the job generally to perfection. So what would be the measurable benefit of adding more square feet to an eight by ten bedroom?

To close the circle, we thought back some more: “What did we have in previous residences that did and did not work?”

Having only one bathroom could at times become tricky in a 1,450 square foot living space. Adding a very simple half bath (a toilet and a sink) made it quickly onto the “need” list. We identified the original pantry as the most suitable location for the half bath, but at the same time, identified the pantry space as a “need” item.

That problem was solved when we eliminated the third stair access into the basement and instead turned it into the new pantry, almost identical in size to the old one.

It’s down to the closet

Small bedrooms, like ours, work really well if there is little or no clutter. To prevent clutter, sufficient storage or closet space evolved into another critical “need” item on our list. Even though each bedroom came with its own walk-in closet, we were still looking for opportunities to add some storage space.

By switching the door around, the closet that formally served the master bedroom is now storage for the guest bedroom. That leaves us with two walk-in closets for this room, but none for the master bedroom.

We became comfortable taking this step as we scrutinized the relatively long and narrow layout of the master bedroom. If we shorten the bedroom by three feet, giving us the needed space for two walk-in closets, we end up with a functionally sized and better proportioned bedroom and even room for a dresser.

Isn’t it amazing how much thought goes into this and how few walls are moved as a result?


The green roof dream

A vegetable garden on our roof has been on our wish list for a while. The question is if we can pull it off.

There are structural and budgetary challenges and they are closely linked. We have some very impressive steel columns supporting an equally impressive steel beam running near the center of the basement.


This assembly supports the interior load bearing wall of the 1st and 2nd floor and appears so sturdy that I was convinced it would support a green roof.

The actual roof structure, the 2 by 10 old growth joists running across the building, did not generate much confidence. I assumed this was the weakest structural link and would not support the extra weight of the airy vegetable plots.


How much structural reinforcement is needed? Are we talking about $500, $5,000 or $50,000? To find out, we need a feasibility study from a structural engineer.

I got Kerry from Louis Shell Structures (LSS) to take a look at the house and structures with me. He was very happy that I had all the walls open. He actually could look at and measure all load bearing components, which we did for about two hours.

To accommodate the vegetable garden, I assumed a growing medium depth of 6 inches and a drainage layer depth of 2 inches. All in all, a load capacity of 80 pounds per square foot (psf).


Kerry took all this information back to his office and began to crunch numbers–a lot of numbers! Lo and behold, the results were somewhat unexpected.

What I assumed to be the most solid component, the steel columns and beam, turned out to be a weak link. And what I thought to be the weakest link, i.e. the roof joists, appeared to be rather sturdy. Almost all roof joists are fit to support the additional 80 psf, with the exception of the long span area over the dining room and the kitchen.


Over the dining room area, I will need to sister the existing roof joist with two 2 by 10s (one on each side). Over the kitchen area, I only would need to add one 2 by 10 to each existing joist. All roof joists will need vertical blocking over the load bearing wall. And that is it for the roof structure!


As for the interior load bearing wall on the 1st and 2nd floor, we need to add some minor reinforcement. All typical door openings need a new 2 by 8 double header to transfer the load.


The larger opening for the French doors has to be reinforced with a double-LVL header (2 by 9 ¼ inches).


Some of the studs in the load bearing wall do not line up with the floor joists, which prevents proper load transfer. To solve this problem, we either need to add studs, or move the existing studs under the floor joists.


Last but not least, we have the unexpected weak link in the basement. It turns out that we will need to add a 4 inch steel pipe column half way between each existing steel column. The new columns will require a 4 by 4 foot concrete spread footing.


As for the budget, I think we are probably in the $5,000 range for these reinforcements. I am not sure when we will be able to put up the green roof. What I do know is that we should take care of the reinforcement now, while we have the chance.